The world's last wizards protect the 19th century from their lost parents' nemesis.
|“Pluto’s flaming flatulence!” Myrddin Moridunum stormed around the silver-walled Earthfont room deep beneath his castle. Red, crackling power danced like lightning all around him. It purt near singed Leroy Sykes’s eyebrows every time he passed nearby. “That Ambrosia bitch has closed the blasted labyrinth!”
Leroy reckoned it was best to say nothing; he only cringed a bit lower as his master stopped before him and shook the twin lockets that dangled from the chains laced around his fingers.
“She released her lover’s spirit from the maze just before the power inversion, and now the damned thing’s dark! There’s no way to follow it, even with these blasted lockets!”
He turned away and picked up pacing again, going around and around the raging pool of lava in the center of the room. Leroy remained on his knees, though he edged a bit closer to the passage up and out of the castle every time his master was hidden beyond the gush of the lava fountain. He knew he didn’t have much of a chance, but he sure had a hankering to make himself scarce.
The master had been trying to tap into the Ambrosia power thing ever since this’n here blew up and all them people just… went away. Leroy didn’t know where they went, and he didn’t rightly care. All he really cared about was gettin’ the hell out of there his own self. He almost wished that damn Heath Burnley had taken him along wherever it was he went. Except, of course, that Burnley might just have taken a quick one-way trip to Hell.
That was a nice thought, anyhow.
The thought of Burnley’s toes roasting in Hell didn’t distract him for long, though. He had a real bad feeling about this. He wasn’t much of a thinker, but he was a survivor, and he could work out the common sense of this here problem right enough. If Pete Burnley’s ghost was what made that there laby-thing work, and his ghost was gone now, Leroy figured the Master was going to need a replacement. He didn’t want to be the next ghost in the maze.
“That’s it!” The master emerged from behind the gusher, pacing fast and talking loud. “She actually thought she could trap me in the place of her pathetic human boyfriend!” He paused for a moment, while Leroy froze as still as a statue. “Oh,” he started laughing, low and lusty, like he enjoyed the little woman’s sneakiness, “she might well have done it, too… were it not for the accident that sent my binding weave into the Earthfont.” He started to laugh, louder and crazier, and took up his pacing again. He headed around the pool and disappeared behind the font.
Leroy made it to the opening that led up. Maybe he could sneak out while the master was distracted; if he could put enough miles between them…
He scrambled to his feet, backed up another pace, and then turned to rush out through the arch, only to run headlong into the Master.
With a gasp of fright, Leroy pulled up short; his boots slipped on the polished silver floor and he nearly fell right into the wizard’s arms.
“Going somewhere, Leroy?”
“Ulp,” Leroy said as he back-pedaled.
“Late for your annual bath, perhaps?” The Master stepped toward him.
“An assignation with the local harlot, then?” The wizard took another step.
“Oh, I know!” Myrddin smiled, and Leroy’s bladder let go. Warm liquid spread out and down through the fabric of his pants. “You anticipated my needs, and were going to find a nice soul to reactivate the Labyrinth. Am I correct this time, Leroy?”
“Er, yes, um, Master… I was just goin’ out to round up a… you know… victim…”
“Excellent!” Myrddin laughed again, and Leroy would have wet himself again if he hadn’t already emptied out. “Oh, a fine display of initiative, Leroy. Very good indeed, except for one small point.” He wove a knot of red light around one of the lockets. After it had sunk in, he held the locket out to Leroy. “You will need this to activate the maze from the far end. Since it is doubtful that you will find a willing spirit, who would carry the power filament through unprompted, I shall remain at this end to draw the string through. Bring the… victim, as you say… to the Ambrosius wench’s Earthfont, wherever it is. Most likely, its access will be from that saloon of hers.”
“Yes, Master.” Leroy took the locket and started to put it in the pocket of his vest, but Myrddin stopped him.
“No,” he said. “You must wear it beneath your shirt, next to your skin. In order to remain activated, it must remain in constant contact with me through our connection. If it loses contact with your skin for even a moment, the spell will drain away. If that happens, you can be sure that you will not be long in following.”
Leroy took off his hat and looped the silver chain over his head, then dropped the locket into the collar of his shirt. It was warm against the skin of his chest. He settled his hat back onto his greasy hair and stood motionless, looking at his worn-out boots.
“Well?” Myrddin snarled at him. “What are you waiting for? Go!”
“Yes, Master,” mumbled Leroy, and, giving the wizard as wide a berth as seemed advisable, Leroy Sykes hurried away, up the passage and out of the castle.
He rushed out of the front doors and into the bailey, where the mule was standing, tethered to the watering trough. He headed for the animal at a trot. Even though he knew there was no escape for him, he wanted to put as much distance as possible between him and Myrddin. Already he was pondering the problem of where he was going to find a warm body to sacrifice for the master’s spell. He knew right well that if he didn’t find somebody, the master would be just as happy to use him instead.
Leroy slowed as he approached the mule, so as not to spook the animal. “Hey, mule,” he said to it, in the low, soothing voice he used when talking to skittish animals, “how you doin’?” Leroy gently stroked the mule’s muzzle; he liked animals a hell of a lot better than most of the folks he knew. Hell, better than all of ‘em. He pulled a dried-up chunk of carrot out of his vest pocket and fed it to the mule, who happily crunched it up. “We got us some more work to do, so…
Some instinct cause Leroy to look up at that moment, and that instinct saved his life. He leaped backward with a holler of fright, as a huge stone gargoyle plummeted from its former perch on the roof-edge of the castle keep.
With a loud boom and a concussion that knocked Leroy onto his backside, the stone monster embedded itself into the cobblestones, launching shards of rock in all directions. One of them shot Leroy’s hat clean off of his head.
The mule’s screams of pain brought Leroy back to his feet. He rushed over to where the granite statue had landed, to find the animal lying on the cobbles, its hind quarters crushed beneath the gargoyle. Its pitiful hollering, thrashing forelegs and wild, rolling eyes were enough to bring tears to Leroy’s eyes.
“Aw… hell. You poor thing.” He looked up nervously, but nothing else seemed about to fall on him. He couldn’t help wonder if the thing had fallen by chance, or if this was some nasty joke Myrddin was playing on him. The idea made him shudder. If he could do something like this to a dumb animal just for a laugh, or even as a warning to Leroy, what the hell wouldn’t he do?
The mule’s pain was too much for him to bear. He went to draw his gun and found an empty holster. Aw, hell. He remembered now; it went into the lava pool after Heath Burnley walloped him one. That was another one he owed that bastard.
“I’m sorry…” What the hell was the damn mule’s name? Its cries of pain brought the memory to the surface at last. Yeehaw, that was it. He named him that ‘cause the day Leroy first stole him, the mule let out a Rebel Yell that brought his owner out of his house, so’s Leroy had to kill him.
“I’m sorry, Yeehaw,” he said, and his voice cracked. “I truly am.”
With a sad heart and a very uneasy mind, Leroy turned away from the suffering mule and ambled across the bailey and out through the gate. t\The animal’s agonized braying tortured him all the way.
As he passed beneath the portcullis, he kept an eye peeled above him, in case something else decided to fall off of the castle.
He crossed the bridge and headed down the path into the fog that always surrounded Myrddin’s lair. The air suddenly became much colder, and moisture began to bead up on Leroy’s hat and clothes. One good thing, though; Yeehaw’s hollering cut off the instant Leroy passed through the barrier. That was a relief.
He shrugged a chill and picked up his pace. The sooner he was down below these clouds, the better he would like it.
The fog was thinning as he came around a bend, and he stopped dead… well, not as dead as the army of rev’nant Comanches that filled the trail in front of him. By reflex, his hand went for his gun that wasn’t there. About two dozen of them Injuns brought up their bows and drew fletchings back to their rotten cheeks.
Leroy slowly… very slowly… raised his hands.
Nobody shot him. Instead, they just stood motionless while a big one in an even bigger feathered headdress came forward. Leroy knew, even before he saw the glowing red eyes, that it was Chief Ten Bears.
“Howdy, Chief,” he said to the undead Indian. “I was just on my way down to see you boys. You done burnin’ Rattler’s Fang already?”
Ten Bears walked up to Leroy, looked at him for a moment, and then whipped the butt of his fire lance across Leroy’s face.
Pain flared, white and red. When the first flash faded a bit, he found himself laid out flat on the wet rock. The dead Injun chief was standing over him, the point of his lance at Leroy’s throat.
“Now, why’d you want to go and do that, Chief? I was just doin’ the Master’s biddin’, like you are.”
Ten Bears growled. “I do not serve your Master any longer, Leroy Sykes. I go now to kill him.” He paused, and his red eyes burned a hole in Leroy’s already thin courage. “I wonder if you can give me a reason not to kill you, right here and now.”
Mel watched from behind the vanguard of Comanches as Chief Ten Bears stood over Leroy Sykes, pointing his fire lance at him. Molly stood by his side, with Little Pete still sleeping against her chest. The boy had stirred a few hours ago, but then fell right back into his deep sleep, or whatever the hell it was. Molly still held out hope that the boy would recover, but Mel was beginning to doubt it.
He hadn’t seen Gordy again since that one time the night before, but he kept an eye open, hoping that his disguised friend would find a way to help them all get out of here.
The Comanche undead had treated them all right so far, but he still didn’t understand what Ten Bears wanted with them. The Chief was going after that wizard fella who raised him up from the dead, though, that was for sure. The silver bullet that Mel shot him with must have hit someplace that cut off the wizard’s control, somehow, because he seemed like he was mighty grateful that Mel had shot him.
Molly sidled up a bit closer to him, and Mel couldn’t help but smile as he put an arm around her shoulders. She sure was getting friendly. He realized that he had more to live for now than he had any time since he turned tail and ran off from the Comanche War. He imagined himself standing with this woman by his side in better times, holding onto a bundle that belonged to them, instead of to Heath and Sally. He pictured what his life might be like, with a woman who loved him. It looked pretty good.
But first, they all had to survive this big mess they were in.
Ten Bears called a couple of his braves to pick Sykes up off of the ground. They led him back and tossed him into the circle of guards where Mel and Molly stood.
“Sykes,” Mel said, by way of greeting. He didn’t have any use for this thieving, murdering piece of garbage, but here they were, all in the same damn boat. “I figured you for a dead man just then. How’d you talk your way out of it?”
“Damned if I know,” said Sykes. “Blasted Comanche has always had it in for me. Must have thought of some use for me, I reckon.”
Mel grimaced as Sykes ran his ratty eyes over Molly.
“How do, Ma’am,” he said, lifting his filthy hat off of his filthy hair for a second. “Whyn’cha interduce me to yer lady, Mel? I didn’t know you went and got married. Or have you two just been naughty-naughty?”
Sykes laughed, and Mel saw red. He stepped away from Molly and let fly with a solid right to Syke’s jaw. Sykes went down like a sack of potatoes. Mel saw blood on his knuckles, and realized that he hit Sykes in the same place Ten Bears had just fire-lance-whipped him.
Mel looked down at the outlaw who was curled up, holding his face in both hands, and looking daggers at Mel over his fingers. The undead Injuns all around them stood unmoving, not caring what they did, as long as they didn’t try to leave the circle.
“Sykes, you must be as stupid as you are ugly,” he said. “You keep your damned mouth shut. This here ain’t Molly’s boy. It’s Heath’s and Sally’s.”
Sykes’ eyes went wide, and he started laughing again, even with his hands clamped over his face. “Stupid, am I?” he mumbled. “I’m smart enough to know that boy there is a real valuable piece of property. The Master’d trade an awful lot for him. I wonder what ol’ Ten Bears would do if he knew?”
“You keep your mouth shut, Sykes, or I’ll kill you with my bare hands.”
“Not before I tell our Injun chief what a good bargainin’ chip he’s got. Naw… you better be real nice to me, Mel. You better help me get out of here, or maybe I’ll do some trading for my freedom.”
“No, Mel,” came a piping young voice, “I think we can cut a deal with Leroy, here.”
Mel’s head whipped around to find Molly, her eyes as big as silver dollars, staring at the wide-awake boy in her arms.
The boy himself looked at Mel with eyes that were way too savvy to belong to a toddler.
“Funny thing is, Mel,” said Little Pete, “I ain’t so little on the inside as my nephew is on the outside. And I don’t know how the hell I got in here, either. But I do know some things that’ll help us beat these bastards at their own game.” He looked at Sykes, who lay motionless on the ground, eyes as wide as Molly’s, and Mel’s too, he’d wager. “What do you say, Leroy? Old Myrddin hasn’t been your best friend either, has he?”
“I’m listening,” said Sykes.
“Should we be talkin’ right out loud?” Mel looked around at all their sailors.
Sykes sniggered. “These boys ain’t got brains enough to step off the tracks when a train’s a-comin’. All they know’s what their master orders ‘em to do.”
“That’s right, Mel,” said the little one, “Revenants have one-track minds, if they have minds at all, that is. But we might just gather in a little bit, in case Ten Bears is lurking nearby.”
They gathered into a group, so nobody had to speak above a whisper. “Here’s the thing. I happen to know that Myrddin can’t get back through the Labyrinth without Leroy’s help.”
“He don’t know that Ten Bears ain’t on his side no more, neither,” Sykes informed them.
“No?” Little, er, Big Pete nodded thoughtfully. “Well, that’s real good to know, Leroy.”
“Gordy Wenn is here, too,” Molly blurted out, “dressed up like one of the Injuns.”
Sykes and Pete both stared at her.
“We’ll have to figure a way to get a message to him when we’re ready to make our move,” the boy said. “Now, here’s what we’re goin’ to do…”
Mel stood there, his jaw dangling wide open, as Pete Burnley the Elder, a man that Mel had seen laying dead in the street, shot in the back, started to give him instructions out of the mouth of his brother’s only child.
Gordy was getting a mite tired of this here pretending to be a damned undead Injun. It was one thing when he was doing it to keep from joining Huey and Dave as honest-to-God undead white men. It had been a near thing, too; he had run off when they ambushed him and the other two in that alley in Rattler’s Fang, and managed to stumble over the body of an Injun that somebody had shot with one of that gunslinger’s silver bullets. He had the idea to pass himself off as one of ‘em, and stole the corpse’s clothes. It was a stroke of genius, even if he did say so himself, to smear the Injun’s rotten innards all over him to hide the smell of living flesh. Then, all he had to do was stagger around like one of them brainless monsters, and nobody paid him no mind. He even still had his gun, hidden under his buckskins. If nothing else, he could take a few out, and then shoot himself with his last bullet before they dragged him down.
When old Ten Bears had started to lead them out of town, Gordy was going to slip away and stay behind, but then he saw Mel Sampras, Molly, and Heath Burnley’s kid bein’ herded along by the stiffs. Gordy figured them for steaks on the hoof if he didn’t do something to spring ‘em loose. He had to stick around and try to help, or he wouldn’t be able to sleep at night for nightmares about what them Injuns would do to ‘em. He took a hell of a chance by showing himself to them, but he wanted them to know they wasn’t alone. Then, he faded back and waited for his chance.
Now, they were all crowded into the trail up to the old Gadsden mine, and the revenants around him were getting all riled up. What the hell is goin’ on with these damned stiffs? He let his eyes do the looking, trying not to move much else, so as not to show his nerves. The Injuns downwind of him were turning their heads back and forth, like they were trying to figure out where some smell was coming from. They kept sniffing around like a bunch of dogs testing the breeze. One of ‘em in particular, a big brave with a flap of hair-covered skin cut loose from his scalp that lay turned over, bottom-side out and hanging down past his left ear, must have had a better nose than most. He turned his empty eye-sockets toward Gordy, and didn’t turn away again.
Oh, hell. The reek of that dead Injun’s innards must be wearing off; these bastards smell live meat. His bladder nearly let loose, but he mastered it. That would have really given him away.
He needed to find a rotten carcass, and fast. He stumbled slowly away, trying to get back out of the main crowd. He didn’t want to act suspiciously, so he forced himself not to look back and see if the big Injun was following him. As he moved through the tight-packed crowd of undead, noses twitched and heads started to turn. He must not smell too tasty just yet, though, he tried to reassure himself; none of ‘em reached out to grab him. It’s a damn good thing these guys are so slow, or else I’d be done for.
He finally made it out to the trailing edge of the crowd. There were all kinds of dead critters laying around, that the revenants had munched on while the poor things struggled and screeched. They only got nourishment from living flesh. Once the critters died, they were no good to the walkin’ dead, and they dropped ‘em.
Gordy found himself a good, ripe, half-eaten polecat. It must have died pretty quickly; there was quite a bit of it left uneaten. He bent down and grabbed hold of its blood-matted, black-and-white striped tail. He straightened and turned toward the rocks, where he could hide while he smeared himself with its innards.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a disturbance in the crowd of mostly-still revenants. The big Injun with the skin-flap was following him after all. Skin-flap was still back in the crowd a ways, but he was moving slowly but surely right for Gordy. There wasn’t time to go and hide. He started off at an angle to his pursuer. As he shuffled away, he thrust a hand into the polecat’s burst belly, yanked out a handful of rancid guts, and started to smear them over his face, neck, and chest.
The stink itself just about killed him at first, but he kept at it, rubbing it into the buckskins he had stolen from the same dead Injun whose guts had kept him hidden until now. It was a damn good thing his stomach was emptier than a church in a boomtown, or he would have spewed its contents all over the nearest undead. With a quick glance back – Skin-flap had emerged from the crowd and turned to follow his scent – Gordy moved back into the crowd at another spot and headed up toward the front, smearing himself with gore as he went. He changed directions a couple of times, to try to throw off the pursuit, but he wasn’t sure it was working.
He doubled back and headed toward the rear again. There was Skin-flap on his backtrail. That bastard must really have my scent. He passed Skin-flap on the far side of the trail, and slipped out of the crowd again. He tossed the polecat’s body aside, and shuffled off toward the rocks. He made it into cover and peered carefully around the edge of the rock escarpment he had hidden behind. Skin-flap, still by himself, emerged from the crowd and headed right toward Gordy’s hiding place.
Now what? Gordy racked his brain, trying to come up with a way to deal with this. He patted the Colt hidden beneath his clothes; one shot from that would take Skin-flap out of play, but it would also bring the rest of the damn tribe down on him. He backed up into the narrow space between the tall ridges of rock. There was only one thing he could try. He looked around for a big chunk of rock to stave in Skin-flap’s head, but there was nothing loose within reach.
Skin-flap appeared at the end of the crevice and paused, looking in at Gordy. He seemed to hesitate, as if he was no longer sure what he was doing there. Gordy stood looking back at him, maybe a dozen steps away. Neither of them moved for what seemed to Gordy to be a long time, but may have been only a minute or two. Then a bead of sweat rolled down Gordy’s forehead and into his eye. As the salty fluid hit his eyeball, Gordy blinked.
That was enough for Skin-flap. He started toward Gordy, reaching out his hands, his fingers curled into claws. Gordy slipped the Colt from his waistband.
He brought the weapon up to firing position. This is it. He was about to die. He pulled the hammer back with his thumb and slipped his forefinger onto the trigger. A tiny squeeze and the weapon would fire. Skin-flap would die, and he would probably not even be able to get out of this crevice before the whole pack of undead would be at him.
Skin-flap was only a couple of steps away, now. If he didn’t fire, the big Injun would wrestle the gun from him and start eating him alive. His finger twitched the slightest bit-
Skin-flap stopped. He stood dead-still, his arms outstretched, only a stride or two away from Gordy. Then he fell forward onto his face.
Gordy stood there, stunned, his Colt forgotten in his fist. Standing behind the dead-again Injun was little Pete Burnley, a big grin on his face, and a little silver man on horseback in his hand. The mounted figure’s long spear was covered with black gore. Little Pete bent down and wiped it clean on Skin-flap’s breechclout. Then the boy stood and gave Gordy a wink.
“After you get yourself good and stinky, Gordy,” said Little Pete, as he tucked the silver knight into a little rucksack and slung it back over his shoulder, “come stand near us. We got some plannin’ to do, and you ought to listen in.” With a quick grin that looked way too devilish for a child that young, he turned and scampered away. Just before he turned out of the defile, he shimmered for an instant and faded from sight.
Stunned, Gordy stared for a long moment at the spot where the boy had vanished. When he was able to get hold of himself, he shuffled past the motionless body of Skin-flap and went out to rejoin the crowd.
It looked as if the three prisoners weren’t quite as helpless as Gordy thought.